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Climate Props

By Keith Kloor
Oct 18, 2011 10:37 PMNov 19, 2019 8:54 PM


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If a picture, as the adage goes, says a thousand words, then I take umbrage to a picture of an emaciated Somali child being used as a prop in this post. For the meaning of it does not support the text. I went over to Climate Progress and left this comment:

The picture accompanying this post is of a Somali child. Neither climate change, nor the current drought in East Africa are primary causes of the tragic famine in Somalia. It's unnecessarily exploitive to use this child's picture to reinforce a climate change message. It's also misleading to suggest there is a meaningful climate connection to this picture of a malnourished child.

Joe Romm responded, which I'll excerpt here:

This is an absurd stretch, even for you, Keith. First, warming of the Indian ocean has been directly linked to the Somali drought, but you wouldn't know that as you hardly ever write about the scientific literature anymore. You just find the most tortured excuses to attacked those of us who do. You devote far, far more posts to attacking those who try to articulate the science than to those who spread disinformation.

Hmm, I'm sure a few well-known climate skeptics might beg to differ, but that's another argument for a separate post. Let me restate what I wrote several months ago about the Somali famine:

This humanitarian tragedy is not in any way attributable to global warming.

Those who are familiar with Somalia's recent history and current state of affairs do not mention climate change as a relevant factor to the country's latest tragedy. As one Somali expert notes:

The leading cause of the famine is the absence of a functioning state in Somalia. The current drought has affected other states such as Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. Although communities there are vulnerable, none of these countries face the same level of starvation taking place in stateless Somalia.

Ed Carr has an informative post that makes the same point, with more detail:

Famine stops at the Somali border...Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya. Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.

Here's Oxfam on the root causes:

Years of of internal violence and conflict have been highly significant in creating the conditions for famine in Somalia.

It's also important to know, as this expert points out, that the famine has struck hardest in regions controlled by Al-Qaeda linked extremists:

South-central Somalia is controlled by al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is paranoid about international NGOs and a year ago, they banned aid agencies from helping people in that region. A lot of the crisis is attributable to the fact that many people whose situation was very vulnerable did not get adequate help in time. That is why you see this crisis has reached this level.

Finally, Andy Revkin, in this essential Dot Earth post, weaves together all the strands of the story, including the climate angle:

For the moment, the science is mixed on how the greenhouse-driven heating of the planet might affect east African patterns of drought.

But he also helpfully reminds us of the region's paleo-climate history (which is mostly absent from current discussions):

Over all, in considering policy options related to African progress, it's vital to keep in mind that the climate history of peri-Saharan regions includes millenniums-long patterns of mega-drought far more extreme than anything experienced in modern times.

None of this is to say that global warming will not exacerbate the already vulnerable societies in the East Africa, especially those, like Somalia, stuck in an endless cycle of political unrest and violence. But man-made climate change is certainly not responsible for Somalia's current agony. In his post, Revkin wrote that he was

irked by recent efforts to link this catastrophe to human-driven climate change. That is an unsupported distraction from the causes, and any talk of addressing this crisis.

In my post this summer, I expressed a similar sentiment and added:

Anyone who wants to invoke climate change as a contributing factor to Somalia's latest tragedy should spend 48 hours having tea with the warlords and Islamic extremists that currently rule much of the country.

As best as I can tell, Joe Romm has never linked the Somalia famine in any way to climate change. Additionally, the photo that I object to, as Romm pointed out in his response to me, does not contain a caption. Well, leaving aside that it should have a credit of some sort, I think it's reasonable to infer that anyone following recent world events might associate the photo with the Somali famine. Curious about the picture, I moved my cursor over it and sure enough, a small caption appeared, reading "Somali boy." After reading Romm's response to my comment, I went back to the photo on Climate Progress and noticed that the internal caption had been erased (unless my cursor is no longer picking it up for some reason).* I wrote this post, in part, so a malnourished Somali child would not be seen as just an anonymous prop in a climate blog.

Update: Kudos to a reader for tracking down where the photo originally appeared. Photo taken by Peter Biro for IRC *Shortly after publishing this post, I went back to CP and tried again. This time, the cursor picked up the internal caption: "boy_somaliafamine

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